Given the seemingly-daily announcements of new corporate layoffs, it’s no surprise that my most frequently asked question of the moment is about how to start a career as a freelancer or independent consultant. Many of these queries come from the recently downsized. Some of them are looking for ways to make extra cash while hunting for their next full-time position. Others are fed up with layoffs and bad corporate behavior and thinking about making a permanent switch to working for themselves.
If you’re currently between jobs (or fear you may be soon), I recommend giving the freelance life a try. Even if you have no interest in working for yourself long-term, it’s a great way to create a temporary cash flow and make valuable contacts (those freelance clients will likely be hiring for full-time positions eventually).
Freelancing is also a good way to take control when the indignities of the typical job search start to make you feel powerless. Who knows? You may be so successful on your own that you’ll never want to return to cubicle life. I know many thriving solopreneurs who started freelancing as a temporary arrangement between gigs and got hooked.
So how do you get started? If you’ve been laid off, you’re probably itching to start making some money fast. That’s why I put together the tips below on how to quickly land those first paying gigs (for more in-depth advice on launching a career as a solopreneur, please also check out Chapter 8 of Escape from Corporate America).
1) Define your service offering. For some of you, this is a no-brainer. Certain career specializations lend themselves to freelancing more easily than others. For example, there is always demand for freelance writers, designers, and programmers. But there are also plenty of opportunities for those whose skills are not quite as easily packaged. Think about who might be able to use your knowledge, talents and experience on a freelance basis. Can you manage projects, advise on strategy, conduct research, or revamp processes (to name just a few examples)? It’s important to be proactive about defining what you can do. Don’t just wait around for potential clients to tell you what they need.
2) Set your rates. The question of what to charge can be a challenging one. When you’re starting out, setting your rate will be more art than science. Do your research on the going market rates for similar services by checking out listings for freelancing and consulting assignments on the sites mentioned in Tip #3 below. Join a networking group for independent professionals in your field (like Freelancers’ Union or Mediabistro for example) and ask other members about appropriate fee ranges. As a newbie, you’ll probably have to be a bit flexible. Once you’ve got some experience to back up your claims of greatness and a better understanding of your fair market value, you can always adjust your rates accordingly.
3) Find assignments. There are potential clients out there looking for you right now. You just have to know where to find them.
- Start with online freelance marketplaces like eLance.com and Guru.com. You can browse through available projects and bid on the ones that interest you.
- Job boards like Monster.com and Hotjobs.com can also be good sources. Search for "freelance" or "contract" positions. Similarly, there are often freelance job listings on Craigslist. Many of these listings are placed by staffing agencies that frequently fill contract positions. Make note of which agencies have posted attractive opportunities and consider contacting them directly to ask about other openings.For example, Hired Guns is a NYC-based agency that specializes in contract and freelance work.
4) Do your own business development. Not all great assignments are listed. That’s why it pays to reach out to your network and let people know that you are available for freelance or contract work. Describe the types of projects that you’re seeking and express your appreciation for any leads or suggestions. And don’t stop with the people that you already know. Spend a few bucks on some business cards for your freelancing business and pass them out at networking events and other gatherings (you can get cheap business cards at VistaPrint, but I recommend steering clear of the free ones with the VistaPrint logo that make it obvious just HOW cheap your cards are). While you’re at it, update your profile on LinkedIn and Facebook (and other social networks and industry directories) to reflect your new status as a consultant.
5) Get to work. Once you’ve got your first assignment, the hardest part is over. Do a great job, get paid, and prepare for more work to roll in.
Of course, it will take time to learn all of the ins and outs of freelance life — invoicing, managing your time, managing your clients, managing your cash flow, and all of that fun stuff. If you have questions about these or other aspects of making the move from employee to independent consultant, let me know and I I’ll address them in a future post. Similarly, if you’re an experienced independent contractor with tips for those new to the game, please share your wisdom.
The important thing to remember is that you don’t necessarily need a 9-to-5 job to pay your bills. That can be very reassuring news for anyone who has been laid off or is feeling panicky about the less-than-promising job market. If you’ve ever thought about what it might be like to work for yourself, now may be the perfect time to try it out.